's second-quarter interception proved to be the turning point for the Broncos
. (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
You want to talk about Peyton Manning? Fine. He was remarkable on Sunday night, completing 22 of 30 passes for 305 yards with three touchdowns -- at least two of which thrown so perfectly that he could not have walked to the end zone and placed them any better.
But Denver's impressive 34-14 whipping of New Orleans on Sunday night was as much about everyone else on the Broncos' roster as it was about their quarterback.
The obvious place to start is with the defense. The Drew Brees-led Saints offense entered Week 8 averaging just north of 29 points per game and had put up 31 and 35 in its last two games, both victories.
Denver had them out of sorts from the outset. Twice on the Saints' opening possession, they emptied the backfield and lined up five receivers wide. Both plays resulted in incompletions, with Champ Bailey hounding Marques Colston on first down and Danny Trevathan doing the same to Jimmy Graham on 3rd-and-3.
Brees threw one pick -- a leaping play on 4th-and-2 by Wesley Woodyard -- but he could have had a couple more. All night, he seemed fidgety and uncomfortable, as the Broncos brought different look after different look at him up front and blanketed the Saints' receivers downfield.
When Brees did have guys open, he missed them, save for Darren Sproles on a 29-yard TD in the second quarter.
"I got to give a lot of credit to our front," Bailey said. "The boys up front were playing nasty and hungry."
And for as well as the Broncos' defense played in support of Manning, the Denver offense may not have rolled as it did without its run game perking up early.
New Orleans' second punt of the game pinned the Broncos back at their own 2. Rather than let Manning try to do his thing, the Broncos turned to Willis McGahee. Four straight times.
McGahee responded by churning out 26 yards before heading to the bench for a breather. While he was on the sideline, Manning faked a handoff to backup Ronnie Hillman and uncorked a perfect downfield pass to a leaping Demaryius Thomas for a 41-yard gain. Then McGahee came back in and eventually punched the ball across for a 1-yard TD, capping a majestic 98-yard drive.
Denver later put together a 93-yard scoring march that started with a McGahee carry and included a 31-yard burst up the sideline by Hillman.
"I think our team has come far, especially offensively," Manning said. "Our receivers, I have a better rapport for them. Our offensive line has a feel for what they like. Willis and Ronnie did a great job tonight, really opened some things up for us."
The Saints had a chance to punch back on the strength of that Sproles TD. That score tied the game at seven early in the second quarter and, to that point, New Orleans' beleaguered defense had held its own -- after Denver's first long drive, the Saints came back and forced a McGahee fumble.
New Orleans' next possession ended with that Woodyard pick of Brees, though, which was followed by a Manning TD pass to Eric Decker.
That was pretty much it for the Saints on Sunday night.
When the schedule came out at the start of the year, this Sunday nighter looked like a potential Super Bowl preview. Instead, at least for the Saints, it might prove to be an elimination game.
Despite the return from suspension of interim coach Joe Vitt, New Orleans could not avoid falling to 2-5 -- which gives the Saints one fewer loss than both NFC wild-card teams had in 2011. If the situation was dire before, it's borderline unmanageable now.
Denver, both by comparison and reality, is sitting pretty. The Chargers' early-season implosion continued Sunday in Cleveland and Kansas City probably has its 2013 draft board up already. The biggest threat at the moment? The 3-4 Raiders, whom Denver hammered by 31 points earlier this season.
Even better for the Broncos: After a murderers row schedule to open the season, they now might be favored in nine, and possibly all 10, of their remaining games.
When Manning signed in Denver this offseason, it looked like the sky was the limit for the Broncos. We'll see how true that actually is as the season goes along, but a few more efforts like Sunday night's should keep the Broncos on the map.
"I'm sure the coaches will find some mistakes, but it sure was close (to a perfect game)," Manning said. "Coming off the bye week, we thought it should be better ...
"And we really came out offensively and defensively and (on) special teams, and pretty much played a complete game.